In this post Dr John Elliott discusses his research contribution to SETI and explores what would happen if extra-terrestrial intelligence was discovered.

Suppose SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) succeed and we have detected a technological beacon.  It is an indisputable fact that positive confirmation of such an event will have a profound effect on the human race. So, what next?  Does it contain a message; if so, what does it say? It is unlikely to be written in Martian English, so standard decipherment / decryption techniques used by the military and security agencies are not going to help much.

My work focuses on the nature of communication, how language structure can be identified, and methods for subsequent decipherment and dissemination: to break it up and build it up again.  To put the challenge of decipherment into context, we still have many scripts from our own antiquity that remain undeciphered, despite many serious attempts, over hundreds of years.

So, what is communication [language]?  Is there something unique to communication phenomena, irrespective of the source, which distinguishes itself in the ‘signal universe’?  In this endeavour, I have analysed over 60 human languages, which cover all the different types of systems, as well as non-human communication, such as robots and dolphins, to look beneath the surface veneer of the arbitrary sounds and symbols used, to ‘see’ the language machine itself: it’s mechanisms, constraints, and evolutionary forces of efficiency and compromise that shape it.  By understanding these structures, it is even possible to glean the intelligence [cognitive limitations] of the message author.

Finally, by understanding our analytical capabilities, we can then plan strategies for the dissemination of our findings, in a post-detection scenario. In doing this, we have a starting template to build upon, for extra-terrestrial message discovery and understanding.  We had to start somewhere; home [Earth] seemed the best place.

Dr John R Elliott
International Astronautics SETI Committee and Post-Detection Task Force.
Reader in IntelligenceEngineering
School of Computing, Creative Technologies & Engineering